Arsenic and Old Lace
Slipping down the slope in the culture of death

This past weekend, I saw the old Frank Capra classic Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), starring Cary Grant. If you are unfamiliar with the plot, Cary Grant plays Mortimer, a rather frenzied newly married man who goes to visit his nice old aunts in Brooklyn to give them the good news about his marriage. While there, he starts looking around the premises for some notes that he had written in preparation for a book that he planned to write. Here is what happens next, as described by

While searching for his papers, Mortimer opens up the window seat where he stumbles upon and discovers the results of his spinster aunts' latest charity act - a dead body. In one of the film's classic scenes, a flabbergasted Mortimer does multiple double-takes and eyeball rolls. He wrongly believes that Teddy, who is happily digging in the cellar (thinking he is digging locks for the Panama Canal), is responsible, and is determined to get him promptly committed in the Happydale Sanitarium: "Teddy's got to go to Happydale now, at once!"

When he informs his aunts that Teddy's "killed a man," they react with laughter: "Nonsense!" And off-handedly, when they proudly admit their complicity in first-degree murder of a 'Mr. Hoskins,' he is shocked and mortified to discover their secret - and actually doubts his own sanity:

Mortimer: But there's a body in the window seat!
Abby: Yes, dear. We know.
Mortimer: You know??
Martha: Of course.
Abby: Yes, but it has nothing to do with Teddy.
Mortimer: But, but...
Abby: Now Mortimer, you just forget about it. Forget you ever saw the gentleman.
Mortimer: Forget?
Abby: We never dreamed you'd peek.

His inquisitiveness forces them to explain their own "little secret" - they poison unsuspecting old men who seek lodging with their special homemade elderberry wine (a gallon mixed with a teaspoonful of arsenic, a half-teaspoon of strychnine and a "pinch of cyanide") as a charity act - to end their loneliness and find ultimate peace: "If we could help other lonely old men to find that same peace, we would." They are blissfully unaware that their humanely murderous acts ("Murders Incorporated") are immoral.

I may be doing too much blogging about these social issues, but I couldn't watch this movie without noting that it is possible in today's world that many people may not find what the old ladies were doing to be all that immoral. Okay, they did it without the old men's permission, but they were ending the lives of people who appeared to be unhappy and have a lesser quality of life, weren't they? After all, euthanasia seems to be gaining ground as a viable alternative in our world. According to the Death with Dignity National Center:

By approximately two-to-one, most adults continue to favor the right to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. When read a brief description of the Oregon proposition, allowing physician-assisted suicide for patients who are thought to have less than six months to live, a 61% to 34% majority said that they would favor such a law in their state. Unsurprisingly most people say (by 58% to 35%), when told about it, that Attorney General Ashcroft was wrong to move to overrule the Oregon proposition.

Now, I am aware that the respondents to this poll are supporting physician assisted suicide. But, unlike Layman, I find that "slippery slope" arguments more often than not accurately predict where we are going when we are talking about the world of ideas. You see, ideas have consequences. Look at how our ideas are already sliding:

We already permit a woman to choose unilaterally to end the life of her unborn child for reasons of health. In this case, health is so broadly defined as to present no impediment to an abortion:

"One problem with "health" is that the Supreme Court has defined "health" so broadly that virtually every pregnancy could be said to adversely affect a woman’s health: for example, raising a child is far more expensive than an abortion (economic health), backache and urinary frequency are part of the third trimester (physical health), and dealing with a colicky infant, or contrary toddler or adolescent or just the hormonal changes of pregnancy is emotionally stressful (mental health)." From Presbyterians Pro-life, A Pediatrician Looks at Babies Late in Pregnancy and Late Term Abortion.

We now permit physician assisted suicide in Oregon, and people seem to be indicating a preference for such mercy killing at the direction of the dying person. But it does not seem that such "direction" is critical to mercy killing. In Florida, Terry Schiavo's husband is seeking to remove her feeding tube which will cause her to die from dehydration and starvation even though there is no clear evidence that Ms. Schiavo would have wanted the feeding tube pulled other than the word of her husband. (Even the Death with Dignity website acknowledges that "nobody knows what Terri really wants. The courts have been consistent in siding with her husband that she would not want this." The decision to remove her food and water seems to have decent support (at least, I don't see much evidence of outrage).

Layman has previously blogged about doctors deciding unilaterally to end the lives of unborn infants in the Netherlands without the consent of the mother.

If the United States Supreme Court hadn't stepped in, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals would have made physician assisted suicide a constitutional right for everyone living in the states where that court is the applicable precedent (including California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii). The court's language in the case of Washington v. Glucksberg that " liberty interest in controlling the time and manner of one's death is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment" did not seem to limit the right to suicide to situations where it was assisted by a physician. In fact, the Ninth Circuit Court noted that suicide is not even illegal in any state--only assisted suicide.

Two old women deciding that lonely old men would be happier dead than living and poisoning them for their own good? While I feel pretty confident that most people today would find the poisoning of these men to be immoral, I am not confident that our society would believe such "mercy killing" to be immoral in another 20 years. Slippery slope? Yes, but even recognizing that "slippery slopes" are recognized as logical fallacies does not mean that slippery slopes don't really happen.


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